Watkins Museum Opens The Dark Command Exhibit to Celebrate the 75th Anniversary of its Lawrence Premiere!
Free Screening of the Film on Saturday, April 18th!
Watkins Exhibit Title: Movie Stars on Mass Street: Lawrence and the Dark Command Premiere
Exhibit Dates: March 27th – August 8th, 2015
No Lawrence event has had as much glamour as the premiere of the 1940 western Dark Command. Loosely based on William Quantrill’s 1863 raid on Lawrence, the film used a fictional version of the city as its setting. Lawrence became the obvious choice to host the film’s world premiere and the city was happy to oblige. The premiere was a day-long series of events on a scale that was unheard of in the Lawrence at the time.
Movie stars, including John Wayne and Gene Autry came to town to celebrate the film’s premiere. The community transformed itself in anticipation of the big event. In the weeks of planning before the premiere day, hundreds of horses and wagons were gathered and dozens of floats were made. Businesses gave their stores makeovers to feature either western themes or displays of historical artifacts. Signs were hung all over town to welcome Hollywood to Lawrence. Ultimately, the premiere celebrated Lawrence and showed the city at its best.
Lawrence citizens learned of the premiere on March 15, 1940, just three weeks before the event. The announcement resulted in a flurry of activity. The Lawrence Chamber of Commerce made the event a community-wide celebration by inviting citizens to share their ideas or lend family heirlooms. Business owners and prominent citizens donated goods, sponsored parts of the parade, and dedicated their storefronts to promoting the events. Ship Winter, a local Chevrolet dealer, donated seventy-five cars for the parade. A.B. Weaver, owner of Weaver’s Department Store, selected several young women employees to dress in costumes from the film. Weaver’s and Ober’s department stores also featured displays of costumes worn by Claire Trevor, Walter Pidgeon, and John Wayne in their store windows. About 400 local horse owners and 750 people in period costumes signed up to take part in the two mile long parade down Massachusetts Street. Ft. Leavenworth donated nearly 100 carriages, horses, and other equipment for use on the premiere day. Marching bands from local schools, including the University of Kansas, Haskell Institute, and area middle schools and high schools, all joined in for the parade. Students from Haskell University organized and performed as both Lawrencians and raiders in a reenactment of the attack on Lawrence staged in South Park. Models of the Eldridge Hotel and two other buildings were created and burned during the event.
Local comments from the time:
“But to offend the “Athens of Kansas” with a perversion of its sacred memories of a martyrdom [sic] at the hands of a rebel guerilla is carrying dramatic liberties too far.” – Lawrence Journal-World, February 24, 1940
“John J. Tobler, 633 Connecticut street [sic], who was five years old when Quantrill raided Lawrence, has consented to ride in the parade to be held April 4 in connection with the world premiere. Tobler was a resident of Lawrence at the time of the raid.” – Lawrence Journal-World, March 27, 1940
The film’s tie to Quantrill’s raid inspired Lawrence residents to dig into their family history and contribute heirlooms to the celebration. A committee of thirty-five Lawrence women organized the search for historical artifacts related to the Bleeding Kansas period for a series downtown Lawrence business displays. Raid survivors were given places of honor during the premiere day events and encouraged to share their experiences. Survivors still living in 1940 had been children when the raid occurred and held varied opinions on the film’s use of history in a fictional story. While a small number protested the film’s as an outrage to memories of the dead, a majority of survivors expressed excitement at seeing their history on the big screen and gladly shared their stories and heirlooms for the premiere events.
Displays of household goods, guns, farm equipment, and a variety of items that survived the actual Quantrill’s raid lined the windows of Massachusetts Street for weeks leading up to the premiere. These displays proved one of the more popular elements of the premiere. Local schools took advantage of these displays and sponsored field trips for students to study the artifacts and an essay contest to encourage the students to engage with the community’s history. During his time in town, John Wayne, an antique collector himself, noted his interest in the displays. Thankfully, several of these artifacts survive to this day, including the powder horn and stone shown in this exhibit as well as the Marks clock, printing press, and Herald of Freedom printer’s mallet displayed in the museum’s permanent exhibit gallery.
Following the Stars
For many people the excitement of the premiere stemmed from the presence of Hollywood stars in Lawrence. For many of these stars, the film marked an interesting point in their careers. Only George “Gabby” Hayes was at the height of his popularity in 1940. Hayes had co-starred in the well-known western film series Hopalong Cassidy. His appearance in Dark Command marked his transition to Republic Studios and one of the first uses of his now-famous nickname. While Wayne is known as an iconic star now, at the time of Dark Command he had only one mainstream film success to his name, John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). Gene Autry’s and Roy Roger’s fame would reach its peak after WWII. Autry’s television variety show and songs such as “Don’t Fence Me In” and the classic Christmas song “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” became wildly popular in the late 1940s. Rogers became one of America’s most popular stars. His films were Hollywood’s highest-grossing pictures from 1943-1954. Walter Pidgeon and Claire Trevor would both have long and successful careers. Trevor, Dark Command’s leading actress, later won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her performance as a nightclub singer in Key Largo (1948). Pidgeon’s career included two Academy Awards Best Picture films. He is best known today for playing Dr. Mobius in the Sci-Fi cult favorite Forbidden Planet (1956). As members of the Republic Studios stable of actors, many of the performers in Dark Command would work together in other films.
Curator Brittany Keegan states the following:
“The Dark Command premiere was one of the largest celebrations in the city’s history. An estimated 75,000 people came to see the film’s stars and be part of the events, including a reenactment of Quantrill’s Raid in South Park and a parade that stretched two miles long. What’s exciting for us is that the event brought the city together and got people excited about the city’s real history. Dark Command came at a time when there were few raid survivors still living. The film inspired businesses to display artifacts and heirlooms going back to before Kansas was a state, it inspired raid survivors to share their stories, and it encouraged a new generation of Lawrencians to learn about the city’s past. “
Saturday, April 18th
Free Screening Times for Dark Command, 10:30/12:30/2:30. In the Community Room at the Watkins Museum.